Longevity and the Indian Tradition
Does the pursuit of longevity, or even radical longevity, have future in India? The following article will consider this question mainly in ideological, cultural and historical terms, rather than in terms of analyzing current technological and demographic trends. In demographic terms, as was also noted earlier, the life expectancy in India is still relatively low compared to other countries (about 68 years), yet it is clearly on the rise1 and no limit can be set for this increase. Important innovative initiatives for research of aging and longevity are on the way, such as the International Longevity Center India,2 whose purpose is “to work towards healthy, productive and participatory ageing” (or healthy longevity). Also the future of general biomedical research in India, including longevity research, looks bright. According to one analyst, “India is a promised land, offering much in the medical and scientific research.”3
Yet, apparently, the biomedical research of aging and longevity, has not yet received a considerable attention in India, judging from the absence of dedicated research institutes or governmental, or even large private, programs to address this issue.4 One suggestion why this negligence happens was that the research of aging and longevity is somehow incompatible with Indian traditional values. It is sometimes assumed that Indian cultural beliefs are opposed to preservation of the material body, due to the belief in the transience of the body and reincarnation. The belief in the supremacy of the spirit and mind over matter and body supposedly makes maintenance of the body unimportant.
As formulated by Prof. Kalluri Subba Rao, Hon. Coordinator for Center for Research and Education in Aging (CREA) University of Hyderabad:5
“The summary of [this] argument was simple and straightforward. In India we have the faith that this life is only a transitory phase of never ending cycle of birth and death. Every one who is born is certain to die. In fact, according the Indian ethos, every one should strive to attain janmarahityam or moksha, a state where one becomes free from the cycle of birth and death. Under these circumstances why to worry that we are aging which inevitable? Instead, one should adopt vanaprastha and indulge in such activities that might take one nearer to moksha or even to moksha itself. Therefore, it is silly for any nation to spend a good chunk of its resources on finding out how we become old and die.”
Yet, apparently the above argument against longevity research presents a very incomplete and even distorted view of Indian cultural tradition. As a matter of fact, in Indian tradition, particularly in the religious tradition of Hinduism (or rather in the variety of religions of India designated by this term), the pursuit of longevity and even radical life extension has been a persistent theme since a very early time.
Here are some examples:
The entire Book 9 of The Rigveda (c. 1700-1100 BCE) is dedicated to praises of the immortality-giving “Soma” plant.6 (The plant is called “Haoma” in ancient Iranian (Aryan) religious sources, such as Avesta, c. 1200-200 BCE.7)
In India, the immortal Rishis, Arhats, and the Ciranjivas (the “extremely long-lived persons”) are revered to the present. Their extreme longevity is often attributed to “Amrit” – अमृत – or the “nectar of immortality” – a revered and desired substance.
Dhanvantari – An Avatar of Vishnu, the bringer of Ayurveda
The traditional Indian medicine of Ayurveda, or “the science of (long) life,” includes a special field of Rasayana, mainly dedicated to rejuvenation.
According to one of the earliest Ayurvedic texts, The Sushruta Samhita (Sushruta’s Compilation of Knowledge, c. 800-300 BCE):8
“Bramha was the first to inculcate the principles of the holy Ayurveda. Prajapati learned the science from him. The Ashvins learned it from Prajapati and imparted the knowledge to Indra, who has favoured me [Dhanvantari, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the protector of life and the giver of Ayurveda on earth] with an entire knowledge thereof.” This knowledge was in turn “disclosed by the holy Dhanvantari to his disciple Sushruta.”
(Notably, within the Trimurti – Hindu Trinity: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer – the deity mainly associated with Ayurveda is Vishnu the preserver, while some of his devotees, such as Narada can live even through destruction and creation of worlds. A following incarnation of Vishnu is said to be Kalki, the “machine man.”9)
Churning the Ocean of Milk” – Asuras and Devas working together to prepare the “elixir of immortality”
According to the Sushruta Samhita, human life can be normally prolonged to 100 years. Yet, with the use of certain Rasayana remedies (such as Brahmi Rasayana and Vidanga-Kalpa), life can be prolonged to 500 or 800 years. And the use of the “Soma plant, the lord of all medicinal herbs [24 candidate plants are named], is followed by rejuvenation of the system of its user and enables him to witness ten thousand summers on earth in the full enjoyment of a new (youthful) body.”
Also according to another foundational text of Ayurveda, The Charaka Samhita (Charaka’s Compilation of Knowledge, c. 300-100 BCE), the normal human life-span is 100 years. Yet, the users of an Amalaka Rasayana could live many hundreds of years and the users of the Amalakayasa Brahma Rasayana could reach the life-span of 1000 years. The great sages, who grasped perfectly the knowledge of Ayurveda, “attained the highest well-being and nonperishable life-span.”10
The ancient Indian tradition abounds in medical achievements, which are perceived as positive and desirable!
In the ancient Indian epic of the Ramayana (often dated c. 400 BCE, and sometimes purported to relate to events occurring 4,000 and even 5000 BCE), the monkey king Hanuman uses the Sanjeevani plant (translated as “One that infuses life” and commonly identified as the lycophyte Selaginella bryopteris, growing at the Dunagiri (Mahodaya) mountain in the Himalayas) to revive Rama’s younger brother Lakshman, severely wounded by Ravan.11 Also according to the Ramayana, the mutilated nose and ears of the asura princess Surpanakha, sister of Ravan and Khara, could be restored.12 Actual methods of skin transplantation to adhere severed earlobes and restore mutilated noses, are described in the Sushruta Samhita.13 According to the epic of Mahabharata (commonly dated 400-500 BCE and attributed to Vyasa), the body of the Magadha king Jarasandha, could be fused from two halves and completely regenerated.14
Thus life-extending, rejuvenative and regenerative technologies have been vividly envisioned in Hindu tradition.
Buddhism too has a strong connection to the pursuit of longevity.
The Great Buddha who grants Longevity is Amitābha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, also known as Amitāyus, the Buddha of Infinite Life. Those who invoke him will reach longevity in this realm, and will be reborn in Amitabha’s Pure Land (Sukhāvatī or Dewachen in Tibetan Buddhism) where they will enjoy virtually unlimited longevity. This pure and egalitarian land of longevity was created by Amitabha’s avowed devotion and perseverance. One of the mantras in Amitabha’s praise is “Om amrita teje hara hum” (Om save us in the glory of the Deathless One hum). Many Buddhist mantras for longevity are recited, dedicated to the great healers of old, so that a portal to their wisdom may be opened and, through their compassion, suffering will be abolished and health and longevity reached in this world.
Buddha Amitayus (Infinite Life) or Amitabha (Infinite Light) in his Pure Land of compassion, enlightenment and longevity
Yet also, material means for rejuvenation and life extension have been developed by Buddhist physicians.15 Of course many methods of traditional and Ayurvedic medicine currently practiced yet require thorough testing.16
Crucially, the vision of advanced medical technology and the idea of a significant, even radical extension of healthy life-span, in this world, are deeply entrenched in Indian cultural tradition. These positive tendencies need to be recalled and reawakened, so the vision of the golden age of extended health and longevity will be implemented in the present time using advances of modern science. The pursuit of healthy longevity is not an “all or nothing” pursuit, but any incremental improvement in this direction may be expected to be beneficial for India and its population.
The research of aging and longevity will be required to find the path toward the practical achievement of healthy longevity, and the original inspiration for this pursuit may come from Indian cultural heritage.
In summary, one can but agree with Prof. Kalluri Subba Rao’s conclusion, regarding the importance of aging and longevity research for India:
“YES. India must in its own interest promote research on aging and associated diseases in a big way. There are always some discordant, perverted voices projecting the distorted Indian Wisdom. India’s march towards becoming a global leader should not be allowed to be disturbed by vested and disgruntled arguments.”
Several practical measures were proposed by Prof. Kalluri Subba Rao to advance the goals of healthy longevity in India. Once again, a person interested in promoting this objective in India can only agree and endeavor to support this initiative.
“Concrete steps and inputs are necessary. One such step is to establish one or more (in view of the vastness and diversity of the country) Institutes or Centers for a multidisciplinary scientific study of the phenomenon of aging and the associated diseases/problems. Such Institutes would also prepare a database for the clinical and biological profiles of the populations around particularly of the senior citizens to begin with.”
One of the missions of the proposed Centers/Institutes would be to “conduct high quality research on the process of aging – at genetic, molecular, clinical, biochemical and behavioral levels” as well as study “disabilities and diseases, including neurological disorders, associated with age and more prevalent in the aged”; in addition to “psychosocial aspects of the aged with a special emphasis on the special and peculiar needs of the aged,” and finally, “connectivity between the laboratory findings and the community to promote health among the aged and to make use of the healthy ‘aged’ to the societal needs.”
Similar goals are now promoted all across the world.17 Let us hope that with our joint efforts, healthy longevity for all will be advanced in India and everywhere.18
References and notes
- Janani Sampath, “Life expectancy in India goes up by 5 years in a decade,” Times of India, January 29, 2014, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Life-expectancy-in-India-goes-up-by-5-years-in-a-decade/articleshow/29513964.cms;
Miriam Leis (Jisun), “India – High-Biotech, IT-Hub, DIY-Science and 8-Armed Cyborgs with a Third Eye,” Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), February 2, 2012, http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/leis20120201;
Shreerupa Mitra-Jha, “Life expectancy in India on the rise, but quality health care services inadequate,” First Post, May 20, 2016, http://www.firstpost.com/india/life-expectancy-in-india-on-the-rise-but-quality-health-care-services-inadequate-2790442.html.
- International Longevity Center India, http://ilcindia.org.
- Kites India, “The advances of Indian research in the new millennium,” 2011, http://web.archive.org/web/20141130221823/http://www.kitesindia.org/the-advances-of-indian-research-in-the-new-millennium.php.
- Badithe T. Ashok, Rashid Ali, “Aging research in India,” Experimental Gerontology, 38(6), 597-603, 2003, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12814794.
- Kalluri Subba Rao, “Should India Promote Scientific Research on Aging?” IEET, March 20, 2016 (first published in 2008), http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/rao20160320.
- The Hymns of the Rigveda, translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith, E.J. Lazarus and Co., Benares, 1891, Book 9, pp. 361-412, the 1896 edition is reprinted at http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/.
- “Avesta: Khorda Avesta, 9. Gosh Yasht,” translated by James Darmesteter, fromSacred Books of the East, American Edition, 1898, http://www.avesta.org/ka/yt9sbe.htm.
- An English translation of the Sushruta samhita, based on original Sanskrit text, Edited and published by Kaviraj Kunja Lal Bhishagratna, Calcutta, 1907, 1911, 1916, Vol. 1, “Sutrasthanam” (Fundamental principles), Ch. 1, p. 8, Vol. 2, “Chikitsasthanam” (Therapeutics), Ch. 27, p. 518, Ch. 28, p. 525, Ch. 29, pp. 530, 536, available at http://chestofbooks.com/health/india/Sushruta-Samhita/index.html#.Uag6GNKnxvA and http://archive.org/details/englishtranslati03susr.
- “Narada” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narada; “Kalki” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalki.
- Charaka Samhita. Handbook on Ayurveda, Gabriel Van Loon (Ed.), Durham NC, 2003, vol. 1, “Cikitsasthana” 1.1.75, p. 446, “Cikitsasthana” 1.3.3-6, p. 455, “Sutrasthana” 1.27-29, p. 107,
Caraka Samhita, Text with English Translation, Complete in Four Volumes, Priyavrat V. Sharma (Editor-Translator), Chaukhambha Orientalia, Varanasi, 2014, Vol. 1,
- Ramayan of Valmiki, Translated Into English Verse by Ralph T. H. Griffith, 1870-1874, Book 6, Canto CII “Lakshman Healed,” reprinted at http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rama/index.htm.
- Ramayan of Valmiki, Translated Into English Verse by Ralph T. H. Griffith, 1870-1874, Book 3, Cantos XVIII-XIX, reprinted at http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rama/index.htm.
Also in Kampan’s version of the Ramayana, according to Kathleen M. Erndl, “The Mutilation of Surpanakha,” in Paula Richman (Ed.), Many Rāmāyanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991, p. 75, http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/.
- An English translation of the Sushruta samhita, based on original Sanskrit text, Edited and published by Kaviraj Kunja Lal Bhishagratna, Calcutta, 1907, Vol. 1, Ch. 16, pp. 141-154.
- The Mahabharata, Book 2: Sabha Parva, Kisari Mohan Ganguli, tr., 1883-1896, “Rajasuyarambha Parva,” Section 17, “Jarasandhta-badha Parva,” pp. 40-41, Section 24, pp. 53-54, http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m02/index.htm.
- On Buddhist perspective, see for example: Medicine Buddha. Teachings on the Medicine Buddha Sadhana and Medicine Buddha Sutra given by Ven. Thrangu Rinpoche, http://www.dharma-haven.org/thrangu-medicine-buddha.htm.
See also: Derek F. Maher, “Two Wings of a Bird: Radical Life Extension from a Buddhist Perspective,” in Calvin Mercer and Derek F. Maher (Eds.), Religion and the Implications of Radical Life Extension, Macmillan Palgrave, New York, 2009, pp. 111-121; Luis O. Gomez, The Land of the Bliss: The Paradise of the Buddha of Measureless Light, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, 1996.
On other religious perspectives of India, see: Jeffrey Lidke and Jacob W. Dirnberger, “Churning the Ocean of Milk: Imaging the Hindu Tantric Response to Radical Life Technologies,” in Calvin Mercer and Derek F. Maher (Eds.), Religion and the Implications of Radical Life Extension, Macmillan Palgrave, New York, 2009; Sherry Fohr, “Austerity, and Time-Cycles: Jainism and Radical Life Extension,” in Calvin Mercer and Derek F. Maher (Eds.), Religion and the Implications of Radical Life Extension, Macmillan Palgrave, New York, 2009.
- Anand Chaudhary, Neetu Singh, Neeraj Kumar, “Pharmacovigilance: Boon for the safety and efficacy of Ayuvedic formulations,” Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, 1(4), 251-256, 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3117316/.
- For example, see the activities and advocacy for aging and longevity research by International Society on Aging and Disease, http://isoad.org/; International Longevity Alliance, http://longevityalliance.org/; Longevity for All, http://www.longevityforall.org/; SENS Research Foundation, http://www.sens.org/ and many more.
- Further on the history of the pursuit of healthy life extension, see: Ilia Stambler, A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century, Longevity History, 2014, http://www.longevityhistory.com/.